Skip to main content

Donald Trump’s Perplexing Rebuke of ‘Citizen’s United’

Is Trump’s presidential campaign in shambles?

By Jared Keller


Donald Trump. (Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

According to Donald Trump’s June filing with the Federal Election Commission, the presumptive Republican nominee will enter the general election with just $1.3 million in cash on hand. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has $42 million.

Even Trump’s fundraising operation appears sluggish; the candidate raised just $3 million in May, a small sum compared to Clinton’s $28 million. Trump’s staff of 70, dwarfed by Clinton’s 700-strong army of devotees, is rife with discord and disorganization, so much so that Trump fired divisive campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on Monday amid concerns from donors and Republican allies. The New York Timescalled the campaign’s state of readiness heading into the general election “the worst financial and organizational disadvantage of any major party nominee in recent history.”

Strategically, axing Lewandowski and throwing off his “let Trump be Trump” mantra may be the last gasp of a general election turnaround. The teetering campaign apparatus seems all but doomed in terms of its electoral ground game: As The Atlantic’s David Graham noted earlier this month, Trump’s fixation on winning his home state of New York and curious lack of serious staffing in crucial swing states like Colorado and Ohio belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Electoral College works.

“New York hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential contender since 1984, but then again every state save one went GOP that year,” Graham writes. “Democrats have a more than 3-million-person lead in voter registration, 5.8 million to 2.7 million. President Obama won more than 63 percent of the vote in 2012, besting his 2008 total.”

While some may celebrate Trump’s impending struggles in the general election, his campaign’s financial shortfall comes with a bittersweet truth: If Trump, (self-proclaimed) self-made billionaire, can’t run a presidential campaign without depending on deep-pocketed Super PAC money for a general election boost, then the dream of an American election system without Citizens United is dead.

Trump’s fixation on winning his home state of New York and curious lack of serious staffing in crucial swing states like Colorado and Ohio belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Electoral College works.

The Trump campaign has rejected campaign finance in the post-CitizensUnited era as a broken system where “when you give, [politicians] do whatever the hell you want them to do.” This is a talking point that his campaign has surprisingly taken to heart, relying only on a meager cadre of super PACs that have raised around $3 million, far behind the $84 million raised by outside groups for Clinton. This is probably best captured by Trump’s bemused response to an early GOP debate question on whether it was a political donation that brought Clinton to attend his wedding: “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”

The strange, eccentric nature of Trump’s campaign organization may lend the insurgent candidate a few advantages. First, Trump’s not the only person concerned about the role of money in politics: A recent 2015 New York Times poll found 85 percent of Americans agreed that the current system of funding political campaigns requires significant change. According to a Pew Research Center poll, Americans across the political spectrum generally agree that the biggest problem in Washington is the influence of special interest money.

Sure, Trump’s ratings are in the tank (a Washington Post/ABC poll says seven in 10 Americans hold an unfavorable view of Trump), but Clinton’s not doing much better; both candidates’ unfavorable ratings are higher than for any major-party presidential nominee since 1984. Borrowing the language of Senator Bernie Sanders and attacking Clinton as an establishment tool might just help Trump figure things out until November. (After all, divisive primaries tend to help outsider Republicans more than incumbent Democrats.)

The second advantage is fairly obvious: Trump has bypassed and manipulated the media more than any other modern candidate, and that’s resulted in a massive boost in attention and messaging with minimal expenditures. Consider that, through February 2016, Trump earned a whopping $1.89 billion in free media compared to Clinton’s $746 million, Sanders’ $321 million, and then-candidate Ted Cruz’s $313 million, according to a New York Times analysis. While other candidates dropped millions on advertising buys, the Trump campaign sat back and, as Lewandowski put it, “let Trump be Trump,” his spiteful tweets and brash statements driving the news cycle for weeks on end.

There’s a reason why, despite his abrupt firing, Lewandowski described the campaign apparatus as “leaner, meaner, more efficient, more effective…. Get bigger crowds. Get better coverage.” He’s right: A June report from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center found that, somehow, Trump disproportionately benefited from an exhausting year of seemingly negative campaign coverage. Clinton, by contrast, drew more negative coverage than any other candidate.

It makes total sense that Trump is so obsessed with winning New York: It’s the cable news capital of the United States, the perfect epicenter from which to needle reporters on Twitter and provide fodder for thirsty producers desperate for footage. Trump is running a campaign centered around organic messaging rather than the brute force of strategic ad buys, a strangely noble attempt to prove that elections can’t just be bought by the person with the most money.

If he loses, it means that the idea of a presidential campaign totally disconnected from special interests is no more than a pipe dream. And if he wins … well, Trump will be president.